A couple weeks ago I was driving around the Arizona State University campus with a co-worker. As we waited for the streetlight to change, we saw students walking around. In the mix of students, there was a young man who seemed to be homeless and coming down from the high from whatever substance he must have taken. While it was instinctual for me to respond with empathy, my co-worker right away said “F***ing drug addicts!” This response took me aback.
What my co-worker did not know was that I previously worked at a homeless youth resource center for two years. During this time, I held a position as a Solutions Advocate interviewing and creating profiles for homeless youth ages 18-26 coming off the streets to use our services. Part of the intake process was to find out as much information about the youth as possible and upload any documents necessary to see what housing or services the youth qualified for. I saw anywhere from 5 to 20 youths a day in a closet-sized room where these individuals had open up to me, a complete stranger, just to get help.
Doing this for two years, I was able to see homelessness and mental health care through a different lens. Most of the individuals coming in were youth that had aged out of the state foster care system and had no family to return to. In Arizona, when a kid is in the care of the state, they age out automatically at the age of 18 leaving them with a choice to continue services with the Arizona foster care system or figuring everything out on their own.
From my experience, most youth try to figure things out on their own, believing they have support from friends or family. The problem with friends is that they were often unreliable or not the best influences when it came to partying, drugs, and potentially grooming them to be trafficked. The problem with family is that there are often reasons why individuals were removed from family in the first place and often those issues remain unresolved; this unfortunately makes staying with family a very short-term option. At the end of the day, these kids end up on their own and living on the streets.
Without the wisdom of age or experience, homeless youth were often made vulnerable to the vices of the world. Many of them would start off by experimenting with drugs, then becoming dependent of the drugs, to unknowingly self-medicating themselves into substance abuse and addiction in combination with preexisting and untreated mental health issues. They try to ignore the problems but without knowing how to healthily address their demons and the cultural stigma society assigns to them, they often fall deeper and deeper.
People who do not understand homeless often argue that there are great programs and shelters aimed at assisting kids who find themselves in these situations. However, in reality, there are not that many. Shelters get filled quickly and most times individuals obtain more trauma from going to these shelters than sleeping on the street. While there are good programs out there, most social services programs especially those aimed at assisting the homeless have limited resources when it comes to supplies, staffing, funding, and the passion needed to keep going. What I am saying is that it’s not easy being homeless. There are many unforeseen reasons, hoops, and hurdles for how and why these individuals are on the street.
It is important to support programs and volunteer to really make changes in the world. Don’t judge individuals for being homeless; instead, question what happened in their lives that got them to that point. It is easy to respond with judgement but it is more important to respond with empathy. One of my favorite quotes is by Che Guevarra; it is, “Let the world change you, and you can change the world!” To do this, we need to educate ourselves in every aspect of our lives and the world we live in. I decided to enter the world of social work and before I did I was given the option like Neo in the Matrix to take the red pill and see the world for what it truly is or I could of taken the blue pill and continued living my life knowing the world was not the best, but ok. I took the red pill and let me tell you the world is a very dark and a more messed up place that many can even imagine. You don’t have to take the red pill like I did but have compassion and educate yourself before judging others.
Instagram handles for Homeless assistance programs in Maricopa County, Arizona:
@cloudcoveredstreets : Provide new shirts, socks, toiletries and letters of encouragement to those in need on the streets.
@theihaveanameproject : A movement created to inspire change, instill optimism, bring awareness and deliver hope to our homeless communities.
@letsbebetterhumans : This campaign is a humble reminder that we exist for one another.
To find out about the state of homelessness in your state: